Immigration: Seeing is Understanding
By Bryan Caplan
Survey USA ran a neat survey about immigration late last year. They asked people in all 50 states:
Which of these 2 statements do you agree with more:
One: Immigrants take jobs away from Americans.
Two: Immigrants do jobs that Americans don’t want.
One of the main findings took me off guard. I naturally assumed that states with a lot of immigrants would be anti-immigrant. After all, whenever I visit L.A., the complaints about immigration never stop. But it looks like I’m smack in the middle of a biased sample of elderly Angelenos. On average, high-immigration states like California are unusually PRO-immigrant.
To get a little more quantitative, let us define the Immigration Optimism Score to equal the % who gave answer #2 minus the % who gave answer #1. Then regress this Optimism Score on Immigrants as a % of the Population. The result: An extra percentage-point of immigrants increases the Immigration Optimism Score by 1.7 points. That’s a lot, and you don’t need fancy statistics to see it:
Table 1: Immigration Optimism Score as f(Immigrants/Population)
The simplest interpretation of this result is that people who rarely see an immigrant can easily scapegoat them for everything wrong in the world. Personal experience doesn’t get in the way of fantasy. But people who actually see immigrants have trouble escaping the fact that immigrants do hard, dirty jobs that few Americans want – at a realistic wage, anyway.
But there’s an obvious objection: Maybe what drives the results is the trivial fact that immigrants are pro-immigration. To address this possibility, I re-calculated the Immigration Optimism Score for non-immigrants, making the extreme assumptions that (a) 100% of all immigrants are pro-immigration (I personally know some counter-examples), and (b) immigrants were as likely to be surveyed as natives. The result: In states with lots of immigrants, even native-born Americans are more pro-immigration. An extra percentage-point of immigrants increases natives’ Immigration Optimism Score by .8 points. See for yourself:
Table 2: Immigration Optimism Score of Native-Born Americans as f(Immigrants/Population)
Are there other interpretations? Sure. Maybe more native-born Americans in states with lots of immigrants hide their true opinions. But I doubt that effect is very large. The simplest interpretation of the data is also the best: Direct observation of immigrants leads to more reasonable beliefs about the effects of immigration.